For our 24th cruise we went on the Rotterdam VI to Istanbul, Varna Bulgaria, Odessa, Sevastopol, Kusadasi (Ephesus), Rhodes, Cyprus, & Alexandria (Cairo). The cruise had elements of the good, the bad, and the ugly. This was our 3rd trip on HAL. We are well traveled and have been to 87 countries.
The Good Great itinerary with some interesting new stops for us in Kusadasi, Sevastopol, Cyprus, and Alexandria. Old friends in Athens, Istanbul, Odessa, and Rhodes. Beautiful ship with classy interior and a great look exterior. They upgraded us without us asking from an inside cabin in the lowest NN category to a nice outside cabin on the lower promenade deck. As always, the predominately Indonesian crew was friendly and helpful. The singers and dancers put on 4 different awesome shows. Stacey's rendition of City Lights is not to be missed and the other 8 singers and dancers were terrific as well. A real delight. The sugar free deserts always seem to be excellent on HAL The $12 laundry bag was a great deal as they washed and pressed all the laundry we could fit in it. My wife Vonne engineered more laundry than can imagine into that small bag. Since we carry on and off the ship our own luggage we take less clothes than most people. Our motto is if you can't carry it yourself (we are 64 and 57) don't take it. Being in Odessa on a Saturday with all the brides is a great sight. The Pyramids and the Sphyinx were more impressive in person than in pictures. Not to be missed. The cruise on the Nile was nice as well. JJ at the Piano Bar was very good singing and playing and they mixed a nice Red Label on the rocks in that bar. The piano player and strings combo put on a wonderful classical and light classical show every night in the lounge. They were a real joy. Martin's explanations of the various ports was quite good and being repeated on the TV was helpful. For a change he did not push the shopping, which was nice. The female cruise director had a nice touch and was not arrogant like some of the male cruise directors we have seen.
The Bad With the automatic tipping policy now in effect on almost all lines service has suffered, especially in the dining room. Our's was so bad the first night I had to talk to the assistant Mater d. He tried hard all week but service was barely passable. Our after dinner coffee would arrive 15 minutes after our desert. They skipped our salad one night. Soup was often cold etc Food in the dining room was generally disappointing. He did well with the duck dishes but the beef was consistently bad—except the filet on surf and turf night—as it tasted like it was baked, not grilled. I had grouper one night and asked for it without the cloying sweet apricot/mango sauce but it came with the sauce and ruined the fish. Compared to the Carnival Pride which we took in July both the Lido and the dining room food was disappointing. Also, the dining room service was better on the Pride. Shore excursions from the ship were way overpriced and many of them were not good according to people we talked to. We normally don't take any and go off on our own. We made an exception on this trip and took two ships tours—the one to Yalta from Sevastopol and the one to Cairo from Alexandria. They were OK but expensive at $139 and $267 per person. Some of the other tours were outrageous. Walking tours of Odessa etc. Odessa is one of the easiest walking cities you will find. The Potemkin steps are right outside the ship dock. We rode the public busses and walked all over the city. Varna Bulgaria is not ready for tourism. We tried to rent a car (which we did successfully in Kusadasi) and they could not get it together, did not accept credit cards, & were generally unhelpful. We walked through the gardens which were nice but it was a rainy, dismal day. If you can't rent a car or they do not accept credit cards this place is not ready for prime time.
We like to sit in the balcony to watch the shows but the ships staff kept us out of the balcony two consecutive nights by telling us we had to sit downstairs. We went downstairs where the sight lines are not as good and noticed half the balcony was filled with people. We then went back upstairs to the balcony bullying our way passed the ships staff. We complained to the front desk about this treatment and they gave us a strange answer that the staff was only doing this for our own good but that in the future we could sit where we wanted. We paid $100 for the internet and were able to get on 3 times. Sometimes it could take as long as 20 minutes to log on to E-mail—it was like watching paint dry. Also, when our $100 was up they did not tell us and collected another $10 from us for going over. They do not let you know that you are going over so this seemed like a scam. When challenged about this they said the contract (one of adhesion I am sure and printed in microprint) allowed them to do so. Another great money maker along with the bingo, casino, bars, shore excursions, etc. We like to play trivia and win prizes but the prizes were so bad we did not do it much on this cruise. One mouse pad without any logos for the winning team convinced us that they had really gotten cheap with the prizes. Someone charged a $20 bar tab to our room in a bar we did not go into. They signed a different name than ours and it should have been caught by the staff but they missed it. We got it taken off. The cruise ships policy of discriminating against hard liquor drinkers in favor of wine drinkers has got to be stopped. Someone can bring aboard a case of wine and consume it in their room but if you bring aboard a flask of Scotch you are breaking their rules. I brought my flask of Scotch anyway as I always do but the idea that this is illegal while unlimited wine drinking is not always grates at me. This is another cruise line policy that started about 15 years ago that has to go.
Conclusions: Overall we had a good time. We always enjoy cruising and this itinerary was great. Our tablemates at dinner were a great group. In recent years we have noticed a slippage in service on all cruise lines which has changed the experience. We attribute this to the automatic tipping which substituted communism for capitalism. Younger cruisers will not know the difference as they never experienced the "good old days" before automatic tipping. We thought the flagship of the HAL fleet would be superior but it was not. We had better service on both the Veendamm and the Zandamm. The Carnival Pride had better food and its cabins were slightly better than the Rotterdams. Since we carry on and off embarkation and debarkation is never any problem for us.